November 14, 2017

Robert Moore stopped counting how many people he’d laid off when that number reached 30. Once, he laid off a man he’d already laid off before. 

“I laid off my own nephew at one point,” said Moore, previously the editor at the El Paso (Texas) Times. “It’s really gruesome.”

It’s also, after awhile, soul-numbing.

That made what he did in October a bit easier. 

Moore, who spent most of the last 31 years in El Paso, got notice at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday that he’d need to offer up a list of pretty substantial cuts by 4 p.m. that day. So he did something he’d been thinking about for some time, something he and his wife had already agreed on, something that would leave as many people in the newsroom as possible. 

He offered up his own position. 

“It seemed to be the best of a series of bad choices,” Moore said. 

Last month, Gustavo Arellano made the same best of bad choices at the OC Weekly. And as with Moore, it happened quickly. 

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In May, Arellano, who spent 15 years at the alt-weekly in Southern California, said he was told he’d need to make a few layoffs. He offered to cut his own salary in half. 

He didn’t hear anything else until August, when Arellano was told he’d have to cut the editorial budget by half. On Sept. 5, he offered several compromises, including eliminating the freelance budget, cutting his salary by half and laying off some of the staff.  If OC Weekly's owner didn’t like those ideas, Arellano said, he would resign on Friday, Oct. 13. 

On Oct. 12, he checked back in. 

Let’s meet on Friday, he says he was told. 

“The meeting lasted 15 minutes.”

Duncan McIntosh, president and group publisher of OC Weekly's owner, Duncan McIntosh Co. Inc., told Poynter via email "Gustavo and I have a different take on his leaving OC Weekly, I didn’t see it that way." He did not respond to a request for further comment.

Arellano and Moore aren’t the first editors unwilling to make more layoffs and cuts, and they aren’t the first to leave their newsrooms because of it. But as newsrooms simultaneously shrink staff and stretch what those left are expected to do, both men made choices that anyone still around probably understands. 

They left in favor of preserving their small staffs and the journalism they produce. 

“I do believe that no newspaper has ever cut their way to profitability,” Arellano said. 

At some point, Moore said, the math just doesn’t work anymore.

Crippling cuts

The OC Weekly was Arellano’s dream job, and one he worked himself into in a pretty fitting way. 

In 2000, the weekly did an April Fools’ issue, and Arellano feigned outrage with a letter to the editor demanding an apology. After it published, he got in touch with the founder and started pitching ideas. Eventually, those ideas made it into print. 

Arellano covered big stories in Orange County in the time he was there, including abuse in the Catholic Church and tough times at The Orange County Register. He also started the popular and syndicated “Ask a Mexican” column. Six years ago, he became editor. 

Like Moore, he’d made layoffs before. 

In 2012, he laid off a full-time staff writer. In 2013, he laid off an editorial assistant. The OC Weekly had a staff of 12 when Arellano quit. 

He spoke to Poynter from the old Orange County Register building, where he was last month for a TV interview. The last time he’d been there, he said, was the day a former editor there laid off 30 people. That man said something at the time that Arellano admired — he’d rather be with staff during turbulent times.

“So maybe I'm a coward,” Arellano said. “Maybe I’m a coward because I did not want to see my paper through really crippling cuts.”

Earlier this month, Arellano wrote a piece for Reason on the death of alt-weeklies. People do want local news, he said, "but you have to make them care for it."

Local non-profits do great work, Arellano said, but they're wonky and their readership is fellow wonks. Meanwhile, dailies and alt-weeklies are slashing staff. And Facebook community groups and local Instagrammers aren't local news. They don't take deep dives into the community, and they lack institutional knowledge.

And what happens when no one is looking? See what happened in the city of Bell, California, years ago, he said. Corruption went on for years. But when the Los Angeles Times started reporting on it, things changed, Arellano said.

"That's the importance of people digging into local news."  

Who covers that?

Moore started at the Times in 1986. He spent six years at The Coloradoan in Fort Collins before returning to El Paso in 2011 to lead the Times and seven other newspapers in New Mexico. At that time, he oversaw about 100 employees. The Times, back then, had about 55 in the newsroom. 

In 2015, when Gannett bought the papers, Moore’s ranks shrank to just El Paso. By the time he got the notice to cut staff again, the Times was down to 23 in the newsroom. He’d need to cut four or five. He'd worked with some of the people in that newsroom for more than 30 years. Some he’d known since they were 18.

The numbness that accumulated after years of cuts helped make the choice of offering up his position easier. 

He cut himself and one more person, keeping 21 in the newsroom in all.

To Gannett’s credit, Moore said, they allowed staff to report the story and be explicit about why the long-time editor was leaving. They’ve been transparent, he said. But he knows there will be more cuts. 

“I’m sure there’s gonna be further cuts down the road unless the revenue picture straightens out," he said, "and it’s hard to see that happening."

There are great examples at the national level of how we pay for vital journalism, Moore said, citing ProPublica as one of the best. We’re also seeing what's possible at a state level with sites like the Texas Tribune, he said.

But Moore’s biggest concern is journalism at the community level. 

“A lot of our best work has been done around the education realm,” he said. “Who does that really unsexy work sitting at a school board meeting? How do you pay for that?”

And what happens in tiny towns, including those he once oversaw in New Mexico, that don’t have a philanthropic base and aren’t the seat of statewide issues? How do we serve those communities?

“The real concern is for the institution I left, and more importantly for the people we’ve been serving," he said. "Who fills that role?”

Undoing the very things they created

These two editors left rather than lay off any more. But what about the editors who quietly left for other jobs? Or retired? They’re out there, too, said Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago and a former Poynter faculty member. 

“Those leaders have come to a point in their tenure in which they realized that they are undoing the very things they created,” she said. 

Witnessing that dismantling was something Matt DeRienzo didn't want as group editor of Digital First Media's publications in Connecticut. At the same time, he wanted to stay and see the layoffs through in the way that was least harmful.

He put his own name on the list of cuts a few times before getting a buyout in 2014. 

"I wrestled with whether I had made the right decision," said DeRienzo, now executive director of Local Independent Online News Publishers, a group of more than 160 for-profit and non-profit online news organizations in 39 states. 

He couldn't help the newsroom or the community if he left.

"It’s really conflicting."

John Robinson thought about all that for years before leaving the Greensboro (North Carolina) News and Record. Robinson, now teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote previously about what it was like to lay reporters off. He oversaw four rounds of layoffs.

The decision to leave, for him, finally came when he imagined telling staff, again, that there'd be no raises that year. He knew more cuts would come in the budget, too.

"And I just decided that there wasn’t any future at it."

Both men are optimistic about the future of local news, though.

"I'm hopeful about local journalism because we've seen grassroots solutions emerge from communities that have been left behind by legacy newspaper cuts,"  DeRienzo said. "And we're starting to see those local online news startups — both nonprofit and for-profit — be supported directly by the community through membership programs, local foundation support and small businesses that prefer advertising that's local, engaged and real instead of algorithm-driven and opaque."

Robinson spoke recently to The Daily Tar Heel about the need to see a new generation in charge. It's happening slowly, he said, and it's a hopeful sign.

But he understands why editors would make the choice to leave now, and why they've stuck around for as long as they have. 

“What we’re talking about here is really gut-wrenching,” Geisler said, “and it’s heart-wrenching and it’s soul-crushing for leaders to have to execute a plan they know is not going to lead to better journalism or a revival in the business model."

‘It’s probably time for me to figure out what I want to be when I grow up’

Arellano has no idea what he’ll do next. 

“People insist I have a plan,” he said. “I have no plan whatsoever.”

He’s taking every meeting right now, both with traditional publishers and nontraditional media outlets. He wants to continue doing the kind of journalism he did at the OC Weekly – the kind that’s unapologetic, the kind people actually want to read. 

If nothing else turns up, though, he’ll stock beer at his wife’s market and deli. 

Moore, too, is looking for a new job. He and his wife would like to stay in El Paso. And he’d like to stay in journalism. Other than working as the crew chief at Arby’s, it’s the only job he’s ever had. He’d like to play some sort of a leadership role in the community, one that helps him push for change the way being editor at the Times did.

“Now that I’m 57,” he said, “it’s probably time for me to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.”

After 31 years in the newsroom, it’s both relaxing and annoying not to be there anymore, Moore said. When there's major news, it's hard not to be part of it. There's a kind of permanent sadness and regret, too, when he hears of more newsroom layoffs. 

But there's also relief, he said, in not making those decisions anymore.

“After a while, you can’t keep doing that,” Moore said. “It really leaves a cloud on the soul.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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